Students and other millennials are an important and growing portion of the electorate. They will be 20% of the voting age population in 2010, up from 17% in 2008. They are much more progressive than the population as a whole, and will increasingly become the key voting block among the electorate. Yet they remain significantly underrepresented among registered voters, in part due to barriers they face that makes registration and voting more challenging than it is for older voters.
As this chart shows, the gap in registration rates of younger and older voters is far greater than the difference in turnout rates. Thus, removing barriers and getting young people registered may be the best way to increase the percentages of student and youth voting. Indeed, youths cite impediments to registration, rather than a lack of interest, as the main reason they do not vote.
What are the hurdles that students and youths face?
Problems with moving repeatedly
Millennials are by far the most mobile segment of the voting population: 34% of them will have moved since 2008. For college students, these percentages are likely higher. Mobility yields a number of challenges.
- Establishing residence
Student voters have to work to find their voting address. Dorm addresses often do not provide the street address needed on a voter registration form. P.O. boxes are never sufficient. Colleges should provide this information to all students, but many do not.
Student voters new to the state or county need to provide ID that demonstrates where they live when they register or vote. State law varies in the type of ID that qualifies. Federal law lets students submit a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check, or other government document with the voter's name and current address. Students new to a jurisdiction who live on campus, or live off campus in group housing, may not have any of these documents with their name and address, and may not need them for anything other than to register to vote.
- Obtaining ID
Some states also require voters to show who they are on a government-issued photo ID. Getting, or updating, a state driver's license can solve this problem, but this may require hours at the DMV, and students don't need to change their license to keep driving unless they are changing their state residency. About 75% of college students go to in-state schools, yet even for them a state driver's license may not solve their ID issues. To give one example, of the 12,000+ students in residence halls at two major Wisconsin universities, only 2% of them had a driver's license that reflected their local address. These could prove identity, but not residence.
State schools' student IDs can serve as photo ID in some states, but private school ID may not, and neither ID will be enough in many cases if it's lacking a signature or a current address.
- Meeting deadlines
State voter registration deadlines also vary. About half the states set a registration deadline of 25 or more days before Election Day. This gives students a tiny window between when they arrive at school in late August or early September, and when they have to register. Surveys indicate that of the millennials who did not vote, 21% cited missed deadlines as the reason.
Students face a number of other voter registration challenges.
- Inconvenient registration and polling locations
The most convenient location for college students to register to vote would be on campus. Under the Higher Education Act, colleges must make a "good faith effort" to distribute voter registration materials to each student, but many fail to do so.
Polling places may or may not exist on campus. Local registrars also may make decisions about polling place resources before new student registrations come in, thus leading to long lines, not enough machines or ballots, and too few poll workers.
- Misinformation and hostility
Election officials in some states have made misleading claims that: (1) students cannot register to vote at school, (2) registering out-of-state may jeopardize financial aid from a home state, and (3) registering at school may jeopardize their tax dependant status and coverage under their parents' health insurance plans. These are not true. Election officials have also made students stand in a separate, longer line to vote, and eliminated or moved a campus polling site at the last minute.
- Absentee voting difficulties
Students who choose to register and vote at their pre-college address face their own set of challenges. Registering to vote and voting by mail can be confusing for anyone new to the process. If a voter doesn't provide ID with a voter registration application or ballot their vote will be rejected. Voting absentee also doesn't solve ID issues.
Where do we go from here?
The solution to these problems is to remove impediments to registration and voting for young people. Some of this can be done in 2010 by groups working on the ground to register and turn out young voters. Fair Elections Legal Network and others can and will provide assistance to help overcome these hurdles.
But in the longer run, election law reform and technological upgrades to voter registration are needed. Online registration holds promise for those with in-state driver's licenses whose signatures are on file, but it would be better if it allowed voters without in-state driver's licenses the option to sign registration forms electronically. Colleges and universities could do much more to help student registration and voting. Flexible registration and voting practices, like Election Day and same day registration, in-person early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, would also help.
If not enough young people turn out to vote in 2010, in many cases it won't be apathy that keeps them home, but rather the hurdles built into current systems that make registration and voting more challenging than it should be.